Sensory Writing: How To Pull Readers Into Your Fiction

Want to write so that readers “can’t put it down”? Sensory writing is a way to drag readers right into your novels and short stories.

Moreover, sensory writing is a simple strategy; so simple that many new authors overlook it. In a recent fiction writing class, all the exercises I gave students focused on sensory writing. It came as a revelation to several authors. One said: “I always wondered how authors made their fiction believable.”

If you’re not using sensory writing, start using it today. To repeat: it’s a simple strategy. Use your senses: imagine what your characters feel.

In sensory writing, you use your characters’ senses—sight, sound and more

We experience the world through our senses. Imagine what life would be like if you lost your sense of sight, or hearing. For readers to experience the world of your novel, you bring them into it via their senses, through the medium of your viewpoint character.

The big challenge: remembering who you are in a scene

In every scene, your reader becomes the viewpoint character; he sees, feels, hears etc as the viewpoint character does.

Think of this as a form of suggestion… words have power to pull readers into your fiction. To create this magic, when you write a scene, remember who you are in that scene — you’re the viewpoint character, and you experience everything that happens in the scene as that character.

Quick examples of sensory writing: you can use this strategy

Here’s a masterful example of using the senses to bring the reader into a scene. It’s from The Night Manager, by John le Carré. If you’ve ever wondered how to bring in the sense of touch, here’s how:

“So he had felt the trembling of the Rover’s engine before ever its growl rolled down the cliff to him and he braced himself as he stood waiting in the wind.”

All authors use the sense of sight. Here’s an example from The Confessions of Young Nero by Margaret George. She combines sight and memory:

“I remember the flame of the torches that threw a flickering red light on the faces around me, in contrast to the clear bluish-white moonlight bathing the wider scene. My uncle’s face looked not like a human’s but like a demon’s, with a burning hue.”

Philippa Gregory pulls you into her fiction on every page. Here’s a snippet from The Boleyn Inheritance:

“He had the warrant for her arrest in his doublet then, at that very moment; but he said nothing. He was planning to send her to her death but he sat beside her for much of the day.”

A sensory writing exercise: become aware of your senses, so that you can use them in your writing

Start by focusing on your senses as you go about your daily life. Spend a minute writing what you feel.

For example… at the moment, I’m in my office, in the very early hours of the morning. I’m focusing on my computer monitor. My fingertips tap the keyboard keys in a satisfying way. My keyboard has a lot of feedback and clicks as each key is struck.

My coffee’s cold. I drain the dregs, then run my fingertips up and down the smooth bone china cup, studying its pale blue flower pattern as I think about my day.

I’m aware of the drone of the air conditioner, but otherwise the house is quiet.

Practice your sensory writing exercise often

It’s worthwhile to run through the “where am I, and what am I experiencing?” sensory writing exercise several times a day for a few weeks.

These exercises are fun to do, and they’re extremely valuable for a fiction author, especially if you’re a new author. You’ll soon get used to paying attention to your senses in real life; you can then transfer that to your characters when you’re writing fiction.


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